Grief during a pandemic: How COVID-19 is changing losing a loved one
Updated 18:01, 24-Apr-2020
Arij Limam

Going through the death of a relative or loved one is one of the most difficult human experiences, but the coronavirus pandemic is making it even harder for many to grieve those they have lost.

The global death toll from the virus has so far passed 138,000, and continues to rise, with now over two million cases worldwide. From Asia to Africa to Europe, people have been dealing with the loss of relatives and friends to the coronavirus, with the added difficulty of unprecedented lockdown measures.

In most countries around the world, visiting sick COVID-19 patients has been banned in order to stop the spread of the virus, meaning that many people can't be by the side of loved ones or say goodbye before they pass.

In other countries such as Italy, funerals have also been banned, adding to the feeling of sudden loss and changing the normal grieving process for many.


Funerals in Italy take place with just a priest and cemetery workers. Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP

Funerals in Italy take place with just a priest and cemetery workers. Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP


'The grief is compounded'

"Clearly, grief is incredibly, incredibly difficult and challenging at any time. But this, sadly, has added another layer – many, many more layers – of complications and anxiety and stress, upset and distress," Linda Magistris, CEO and founder of The Good Grief Trust, a UK umbrella charity for bereavement support, told CGTN Europe.

"Normally if somebody dies in a hospital, you are allowed to go, you're allowed to say goodbye to them at [the] end of life. Sadly, at the moment, that's very restricted, so the grief is compounded," Magistris added.

In the UK, hospital visits have been suspended since the coronavirus outbreak, with some exceptions made that vary between hospitals. In certain circumstances, one visitor - who must be an immediate family member or carer - is allowed to visit a hospital patient.

These circumstances include if the patient is receiving end-of-life care, if the visitor is the parent or "appropriate adult" of a child patient, or if the visitor is supporting someone with a mental health issue.

However, restrictions for visitors to coronavirus patients vary across different hospitals, with some not allowing any visitors at all due to fears of spreading the virus.

"Probably the hardest bit, I think, is because of the huge efforts to minimize transmission, obviously loved ones, family members can't visit these patients," Joff Lacey, a consultant in anaesthesia at St George's Hospital in London, told CGTN Europe. "And I think that's been the hardest thing that I've witnessed."

Families of patients in hospitals around Europe are instead relying on phone or video calls to see their loved ones and keep them company, even if it is virtually.

Coronavirus patients are often alone as hospitals visits are restricted or even banned. Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP

Coronavirus patients are often alone as hospitals visits are restricted or even banned. Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP


Grieving alone

Coronavirus restrictions have also drastically changed one of the most difficult parts of the grieving process for many who lose loved ones – and the part they often need the most support, which is the funeral or wake.

"Once somebody has died, you then have the added angst and upset about the fact that you can't actually have a funeral with everybody that you would normally have there," Magistris said.

"Normally you would have your network of family friends around you to support you and then again, after the funeral, to be there knocking on your door to taking the children out or sitting with you and holding your hand and we can't do that at the moment. So it's absolutely catastrophic for so many people, they're feeling very lost and very isolated at home," she added.

Funerals in the UK are still taking place, albeit with a limited number of attendees allowed, with most councils allowing up to 10 close family members to attend short services in cemeteries or crematoriums, while observing social distancing rules.

Elsewhere in Europe however, funerals have been banned completely, leaving family members to mourn loved ones in isolation at home and unable to say goodbye.

Italy, which has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe, is one of these countries. "They buried him like that, without a funeral, without his loved ones, with just a blessing from the priest," Marta Manfredi, who couldn't attend her grandfather's burial in northern Italy, told Reuters. "When all this is over," she vowed, "we will give him a real funeral."

A ban on large gatherings and funerals open to the community has shattered the vital rituals that help people grieve, said Andy Langford, the chief operating officer of Cruse Bereavement Care, a British charity providing free care and counseling to those in grief.

"Funerals allow a community to come together, express emotion, talk about that person and formally say goodbye," Langford said. "When you feel you have no control over how you can grieve, and over how you can experience those last moments with someone, that can complicate how you grieve and make you feel worse," he added.

Support for those grieving loved ones has moved online in many places as people find themselves isolated from their community. Francisco Seco/AP Photo

Support for those grieving loved ones has moved online in many places as people find themselves isolated from their community. Francisco Seco/AP Photo


Providing virtual support

Much like other services and professions that have had to go online due to the coronavirus, organizations such as Cruse and others across the UK and Europe are adapting their counseling and bereavement services to provide virtual support for those who need it now more than ever.

The Good Grief Trust, which was founded by Linda Magistris five and a half years ago when her partner died of cancer, brings together bereavement resources in the UK on their website as a signpost for those looking for direct support in dealing with loss.

It has now opened up virtual support networks such as the 'Good Grief cafes' so bereaved people isolated in their homes can meet up and speak through video with others in the same position.

"When you're grieving it's incredibly exhausting, it's an utterly debilitating time in your life but just remember that there is hope, there are other people who are going through this who can support you and there are services that offer incredible support," Magistris said. "So reach out and find us because you are not alone."

But there are also things that friends and relatives of those grieving a loss to the coronavirus can do to provide help and support.

"Reach out, say their name. That's one of the biggest things that you can do and also phone someone, if you can get on to WhatsApp groups, if you can then have a FaceTime link with your friends and relatives and just talk about that person who's died," Magistris said.

Reaching out sooner rather than later will ensure the bereaved will not be left feeling isolated, "because sadly, grief changes hour by hour, day by day and perhaps today wouldn't be a great day but tomorrow please keep those phone calls going and keep that contact going because they will desperately need your support," Magistris advised.

Many bereavement counselors have also said they are concerned that the effects of losing someone to COVID-19 will be felt even more in the months and years ahead, even after the pandemic is over.

Therefore support for those grieving will require long-term effort and may take time for mourners to adjust to normal life.

"But hopefully, once the crisis goes away, then we can get out into the community and give people the hugs and that real face-to-face support that they need in the months and years ahead, because this really will have a very profound effect on many, many tens of thousands of people who are bereaved," Magistris said.